In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


The Old Sodium in the Toilet Prank — It’s Not What We Thought At All

A scientist of my acquaintance, in a paper just published in Nature Chemistry, has overturned a century’s work on the well-studied interaction of water and alkali metals. That’s right, there’s a whole lot more to the old sodium in the toilet trick than anyone suspected, and the science could save lives. And the best part? It all started out as a YouTube video.

For generations, students have been taught that alaklai metals (Lithium, Sodium, Potassium, Rubidium, Cesium, and Francium), in reaction with water, release hydrogen and heat, which causes an explosion. Of course, many (including myself) have noted that the amount of hydrogen involved could not possibly cause the observed reaction. Others have invoked a “fuel-coolant interaction” in which a molten metal dropped into water causes an explosion essentially driven by steam. But again, those of us who have tried this, know it simply doesn’t hold water, as it were.

Now, Phillip Mason and his team at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, in collaboration with a team at the Institute of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry, Braunschweig, Germany, have shown this all to be rubbish. Mason’s interest was peaked a few years ago when he made what he thought would be a simple and fun YouTube video illustrating the hackneyed “sodium and water go boom” trick using a $300 high speed camera. What he found, though, were colors and behaviors incompatible with established dogma. He dug, conducting a series of ever more elaborate experiments in his back yard, at his lab, and in the high deserts of the American west. Finally, he had a hypothesis compelling enough to recruit his professional colleagues at two institutes and secure the use of a $100,000 femptosecond high speed camera.

In the end, they demonstrated that the classic reaction is a “coulombic explosion” in which dissasociated electrons soluted into water create an electric field strong enough to rip the metal apart, thereby causing a classic explosive chain reaction. In the accomanying image, you can actually see spikes of sodium being yanked out into the water–not by an explosion within, but by electric charge from without. If this seems odd, remember that the electromagnetic force is astronomically stronger than gravity, and all the devices of modern society, from xray machines to mag-lev trains rely on quite minuscule electric fields.

Why is this important? One confirmation of the coulombic explosion hypothesis came in the form of a predicted antidote to the explosion. Mix a tiny amount of surfactant into the water, and the explosion is stopped cold. This new realization could save hundreds of lives each year, and prevent millions of dollars in damage, by giving foundries the tools to finally eliminate industrial explosions that have always been something of a mystery. In addition, quantum modeling suggests that during the explosion of one liter of sodium, the charge imbalance would be on the order of five billion amps. The ability to trigger such a massive release of electric power, even for a tiny fraction of a second, will surely have commercial applications, such as, oh, I don’t know, starting a fusion reactor?

This is science as good as it gets.

Writers of the Future – Meet Tim Napper

Continuing our “Meet the Winners” series, this week, meet Tim Napper, an aid worker, stay-at-home dad, and now Writers of the Future winner.

Stuart: Hi Tim, so how’d you get started writing?

Tim: Timing and opportunity. While I’d written non-fiction for some years, I was deeply committed to my profession as an aid worker, and as such the thought of pursuing a career outside of it never really occurred to me. What would I dream of other jobs when I was already working in what I felt was my calling?

But I took a break from the work two years ago, partly because I was exhausted by it, but mainly because my wife wanted to get back to her career after giving birth to our son – and I very much wanted to take care of him.

I’m a voracious reader, love science fiction and love writing, so I resolved try my hand at writing fiction and produce as much as I could while we lived in Vietnam where my wife has a job for three years.
Stuart: Describe your “writer’s cave” your preferred writing location.

Tim: I have a great cave. Some Vietnamese art on the walls, plus a large mineral map of Australia (which I’m using for a novel), plus my framed WotF prize money, a glowing review of one of my stories by Locus Magazine, plus two of the walls plastered with my short stories. I find the final edit of a story easier when it’s stuck up on a wall, perhaps because of seeing the spatial relationship between the various parts of the story; being able at a glance to see how it all fits together.
Stuart: That sounds amazing! How long have you been entering WotF. Is this your first contest win?

Tim: I entered WotF four times I think: 2 rejections, 1 Honourable Mention and then the win. The winning short story was the fifth I’d written ever, so no, no other wins. I’d had a couple of token sales beforehand, but that was it. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. I adamantly refused to believe I’d won, first arguing with Joni that she’d made a mistake, then for two or three months assuming that the organisers had made a terrible mistake and confused my story with another’s.
I’ve subsequently had two sales to Interzone, and one to an Australian publication (Grimdark) that pays pro rates. This has made me start to think that perhaps the WotF win wasn’t a huge administrative blunder after all.

Stuart: That’s great! Well congratulations! Okay, Star Trek or Star Wars?

Tim: Put it this way: I have a tailor-made Star Trek Deep Space Nine costume as does my 3 year old son. Sometimes we wear them around the house while mum is at work.
Stuart: Well why not? I mean, when ISN”T the right time for for cosplay? If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Tim: The power to make people believe in and respond constructively to scientific evidence, no matter what their ideology.

Stuart: You and I will work on that one.

Tim: Either that or Hulk-like strength.

Stuart: Tell us about your winning story

Tim: Near future noir set in Sydney’s criminal underbelly.

Stuart: Nice. Well that sounds very intriguing. I can’t wait to read it, and see you all up on stage in April.


Learn more about Tim at There’s a lot to learn. He’s done a lot and written a lot, not all of it science fiction.
While you’re poking around the Interwebs, be sure to check out  my subscription page and I’ll send you a signed e-edition of my winning story from last year.

Write What You Know: Humanity

Writer, Ada Hoffman recently got some press for a series of tweets about writing strong female characters by giving them “agency,” in which she says “Agency is not about characters being good or bad characters, it is about what the characters are given the opportunity to do.”

Yeah, sure. I’ll go along with that. Look, characters are written to serve all kinds of literary needs. The most important, in my opinion, are to entertain and evoke thought about the human condition. Women (or men) who fumble through scenes tripping over rocks and having to be helped along are not very interesting, though every archetype has it’s place. But I was stunned, recently, when a fellow writer and self-professed feminist declared, “You want to know how NOT to write female characters, just look at Sarah on the TV show Chuck.”

Really? A tough as nails, sexy woman who uses every asset at her disposal to overcome crushing oppression, then wrestles with moral, professional, and personal balance as she tries to grow as a spy, a woman, and a contributor to human society? Oh well, of course not. Why would we want more characters like that? I am a feminist, big time, if that means women should not be treated like chattel, but they should still be allowed to be women in the process.

Meg Ryan made a film called Courage Under Fire in which she played a soldier whose helicopter crashes, and while issuing orders to male subordinates, stops to say “What are you looking at? It’s just tears. It doesn’t mean anything.” Now, if you interpret that to mean girls are cry-babies who shouldn’t be in combat, you are wrong. But if you interpret it to mean the screenwriter was deluded by stereotypes, you are equally wrong. The reason I remember it is, my wife was in the army when we met, and she told me about occasions when she or others would cry under stress, and how the men freaked out about it.

But I’ll tell you something. My wife has an expert marksman medal and a wall full of commendations, and when she was in, she could run just as far and do twice as many pushups as required for the men. Only the rangers beat her at orienteering, and during field exercises, after she ordered a prisoner shot for repeatedly trying to signal her squad’s position (which makes him a combatant under rules of engagement), a grizzled gulf war vet (who had seen her tears on at least on occasion) shook her hand in front of all the drills and said he’d serve with her any day. So would I.

Which is a long-winded way of saying, women are more complicated than stereotypes, because women are people, and people are complicated. And women are more complicated than the anti-stereotype archetypes that some want to advance, which are in themselves, just stereotypes.

Now, I can’t ever know what it means to live a particular woman’s life. So what? My wife can’t know what it means to live my sister’s life. But I can write characters that speak to both, to all of us, and that’s often what I try to do. We each face unique challenges and hurdles, and what one woman or man may brush off as par for the course, may be a crippling obstacle to another.

When I write a female character, often as not, I just envision her that way, and that mental image has as much to do with personality, wit, style, and logical position within the universe at hand, as it does with overt, contemporary themes of gender identity, procreation, and career-life balance. Unless that’s what the story is about.

Which brings me back to Ada’s point. Stories are not, generally, about getting characters right, so much as about putting them in interesting circumstances. Almost all literary characters are exaggerations of real life, and that’s okay. That’s what enables them to react to the plot in an evocative, memorable, even riveting way. That’s what enables them to tell us about ourselves.

Meet the Winners! Scott Parkin

Continuing our series with this year’s Writers of the Future winners, I’ve finally got hold of second quarter winner, Scott Parkin.

Stuart: Welcome Scot. Introduce yourself.

Scott: I’m a software technologist specializing in enterprise IT who’s decided to jump into this fiction thing with both feet after dabbling for twenty five years. I’m also a trained operatic bass, trombonist, and former electric bass player for an alternative rock band. I’m happily married for twenty four years and have six children (the oldest studying veterinary medicine in college).

I once read every book (including the dictionary and encyclopedias) in my grade school library; about 5000 titles. I think Tolkien is overrated .

Stuart: Wow! I know when I was a kid, I went through the juvenile section of the library in one summer, but I only read what interested me. You must have had real dedication! So what got you into writing?

Scott: Reading and the movie, The Dark Crystal. I taught myself to read at age five and have never looked back. My voracious curiosity led me to sample many different kinds of writing and I found the mythopoeic genres (science fiction, fantasy, horror, folklore) to be the most engaging, interesting, and informative. While I enjoy all reading, speculative fiction thrills me.

But I had never considered actually writing fiction until I saw the Jim Henson film, The Dark Crystal. It was visually beautiful, but featured a story that I found hopelessly cliché and trivial, so I sat down to write the story it should have told (for the record, I did a lousy job—this fiction stuff is hard). I’ve been hooked ever since.

Stuart: I think we’ve all been there, at least for a little while. Describe your “writer’s cave”:

Scott: I surround myself with technology and books—a full-wall bookshelf; computer table with my domain controller, central media library (audio and video), and laptops; and a desk, a heavy steel government surplus jobbie from the 1950s, with my PC and audio system. The closet is stuffed with computer parts.

Music remains one of the joys of my life, so I have a full home theater system hooked up to my computer and floor-standing main speakers and center channel sitting on my desk behind my two oversized monitors. None of these silly, palm-sized computer speakers for me. I knock dishes off the counter upstairs when I crank it up.

Stuart: Ha ha! When I was a kid, I used to do that with Bach organ music on chrome tape. Now-a-days I use isolation headphones. How about talents or hobbies?

Scott: I’m an occasional woodworker and DIY guy. The operatic bass thing is a little unusual, I guess, though I’m way out of shape from when I actually studied thirty years ago; I still have a better than two octave range and can hit the pedal b-flat with consistency, if not thundering power.

Stuart: Impressive! I used to have a two octave range from choir, but it’s depressing how it fads if you don’t use it. So how long have you been entering WotF? Is this your first contest win?

Scott: I first entered back when Algis Budry was the coordinating judge–contest year 4 or 5. I’ve ended up with something like a couple of dozen honorable mentions, semi-finalists and finalists.

So far I’ve actually made more money from mainstream fiction than sf (though with the WotF antho that might finally turn around).

Stuart: Star Trek or Star Wars?

Scott: Yes. And Firefly, Babylon 5, and Farscape as well (though not so much Stargate or either Battlestar Galactica). If I have to pick one, I’ll go with Star Trek.

Stuart: Good answer. I’ve never understood the animus in some quarters. I like them all, and I’d through in Warehouse 13 and Eureka as well. Pantser or Plotter?

Scott: Research-buoyed pantser. I always start with a core character or situation and a target endpoint. Then I fly completely by the seat of the pants through story ideation in the first draft. I think the truest, most vital stories emerge from the subconscious and my job is to grease the skids then let the story reveal itself as I go; structuring and deepening are part of the rewrite. Which is odd, because my day job for more than twenty years was to plan out every detail of a software project in advance.

Stuart: Coming from the same background, I found the same thing. It’s a very different approach, this artistic creation gig. What’s the nuttiest thing that ever happened to you?

Scott: For some reason I keep getting mistaken for famous people. At different times I’ve been accused of being Steven King, George Lucas, and Orson Scott Card. At a local convention many years ago one fan refused to believe I wasn’t Card (big guy with a moustache named Scott—had to be Card, right?), and kept pestering me for an autograph. So I finally obliged. Somewhere out in the weird wide world there’s a copy of Ender’s Game with my signature (Scott R. Parkin) inside a giant O opposite its title page.

Stuart: Ha ha! You know, I got to meet Scot Card last year. He was the honoree at our awards gala. I know he’d have howled at that! If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Scott: Speed (think Flash). It’s the one superpower than can functionally duplicate many others (flight, teleportation, invisibility). Since super-speed requires commensurate brain processing, you can even simulate super-intelligence through brute force processing power and trial-and-error effort.

Stuart: Ah, the mind of the scifi author at work. You and I should hang out. When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Scott: When I was six I had a metal, battery-power robot that would walk, then open its chest and fire two laser guns. I thought that was the coolest thing ever, and I would run it until the batteries died, over and over again. The other thing was any metal spike (nail, bolt, whatever), a coil of wire, and a battery.

Stuart: Oh yeah! The big honking lantern batteries, and the wire would get hot!

Scott: I was fascinated by electromagnets from the age of seven, and built increasingly powerful versions for years before moving on to electronics and disassembling things to see how they worked. I used to trawl gar(b)age sales for all kinds of devices.

Stuart: Me too! I miss those days of junk drawers and a permanent solder station. If I’d had an adult to guide me, I might be an engineer now. Okay, so if you adopted a unique wardrobe tag (ala Dr. Who’s scarf/bowtie etc.), what might it be?

Scott: Dragons, preferably as either a shirt or a vest, though I’m not opposed to jewelry. Asian dragons, by the way. The serpentine kind with no wings (dragons fly because they’re magical, not because they’re aerofoils). I’m not a big fan of hats.

Stuart: Thank you. Look at a dragons wings. Look at a pterodactyl. Discuss. So tell us about your winning story.

Scott: An experiment in form composed entirely of five-word sentences (and some other five-count Easter eggs that I’ll save until it’s published). I was working on the idea of “character is setting” and trying to internalize what that meant, so I chose an artificial hedge that would force me deeper into POV’s unique mindspace and demand that I stretch myself beyond comfortable limits to express his reality.

Stuart: Whoa! Well that will be an interesting read!

Scott: The ideas of constructed beings and organic limitations on thought and perception have fascinated me for years (think Oliver Sacks and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). My original concept was an AI with control over powerful weapons technology that was programatically limited to five-word memes to keep it from turning on Humanity—full creative and decision-making capacity, but fundamentally limited scope.

Stuart: Kind of like people.

Scott: A fail-safe of sorts to keep human commanders on-mission, to narrow its ability to be swayed by external argument during negotiations. As I sat down to write, though, the story changed entirely and became an extended metaphor and existential exploration that tied a half-dozen other stories I’d written into a coherent universe. It’s a tale of a meme-limited organic being created by Earth scientists to negotiate a peace with an unknown alien race capable of genetic manipulation and elemental deconstruction with alarming ease—his own body an organic firewall against that terrifying capacity; give up as little data as possible by streamlining his DNA to the minimum necessary footprint. They then strand him in deep space on a mission to keep the aliens at bay for as long as possible.

A prime example of why I’m a pantser—where I started and where I ended were entirely different places, though the core ideas remained consistent.

Stuart: Fun stuff! Well I can’t wait to read it, and meet you in person one of these days.


Watch Scott accept his award on the Writers of the Future website, Sunday, April 12th.

If you haven’t already done so, visit my subscription page and I’ll send you a signed e-edition of my winning story from last year.

Meet the Winners – Martin L Shoemaker

When I won Writers of the Future last year, I burned off some of the anticipatory energy leading up to the workshop by interviewing my fellow winners. It was so much fun, I decided to do it again. This week, meet a name already familiar to some of you, Martin L Shoemaker.

Stuart: Howdy Martin, can I call you Martin? Of course I can, that’s your name. Tell everyone who doesn’t know, who you are.

Martin: I am a writer with a lucrative programming hobby. I’m not a full-time writer yet, and I thoroughly enjoy programming; but I would love to someday do programming on the side, rather than writing on the side. I’m not afraid to tell the world that two of my favorite movies are “Hudson Hawk” and “Howard the Duck”. Once you’ve admitted that in public, there’s not much left that can shock people. Speaking of “Hudson Hawk,” I can’t watch that film without singing along to “Swinging on a Star” and “Side by Side”. That ought to surprise somebody! (And terrify them, if they know my singing voice…)

Stuart: Hah! So no forlorn dreams of a singing career then. What got you into writing?

Martin: I have absolutely no idea. I have told stories for as long as I can remember. I had imaginary friends, and my mom tells me I made up stories about them. When I was 5 or 6, my brother got a typewriter and I was fascinated: That machine could put words on paper, and they would be just like A REAL BOOK!!!!!

When I was a teenager, I submitted a few stories, got a few rejections, and got discouraged. Meanwhile, I was learning to program, and I was a natural at it. So I veered in that direction, and I satisfied my storytelling urge through role-playing games, mostly as a gamemaster.

I never REALLY gave up writing, I just gave up believing I could do anything with my writing. I was sure it was a pipe dream, but I kept writing anyway. And one day I had a first chapter that I thought might become a book, and I shared it with my gaming group. Among them is my brother-in-law, Mark “Buck” Buckowing. Mark is one of the most voracious readers I know. He looked at my chapter and said, “Write THE END on it, and send it out. That’s not a chapter, that’s a great story.”

Stuart: Awesome!

Martin: So I was hooked all over again. I started writing a lot more. I started submitting, and not letting rejections slow me down this time. I started studying. And four years later, I have Third Place in Writers of the Future. I have four sales to Analog: two already published, and two coming out in 2015. I have two sales to Galaxy’s Edge and two to the Digital Science Fiction anthology (now defunct). I have one story in “The Gruff Variations: Writing for Charity Volume 1”, and one in “The Glass Parachute” anthology. And the most stunning to me of all: my Analog novella, “Murder on the Aldrin Express” was reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction 31st Annual Edition, and also in audio and eBook in Year’s Top Short SF Novels Vol. 4. All because I stopped letting rejection stop me, and all because my brother-in-law gave me a shove in the right direction. Thanks, Buck!

Oh, and that story he told me to send out? It won 2nd Place in the Baen Memorial Writing Contest. Rich Johnson won 1st, but couldn’t make the trip from Australia, so I attended the awards in his place. I had dinner with Ben Bova, and lunch with BUZZ ALDRIN! Thanks, Rich! And thanks, Buck!

Stuart: I’ve always said, it’s impossible for any writer to over appreciate his or her beta readers. Describe your “writer’s cave” your preferred writing location.

Martin: My most pleasant writing experiences have been in unexpected places where the right confluence of events gave me time to kill and just the right mood. I wrote half a novella in an airport one time when there was a flight delay. I wrote nearly 10,000 words on New Year’s Eve two years ago, half in a gyros shop and half in a Starbucks. I had a party that night but no place to go for most of the day, so I just sat and wrote. So often I crave this sort of writing spot: a restaurant, café, park, or museum where I can escape for a few hours. I’d love to live near a good space museum that I could turn into a regular writing haunt.

Stuart: How long have you been entering Writers of the Future?

Martin: I first entered in 2011 and stumbled in as Finalist. To make a long story short, I entered every quarter from then until my win. In all, I had 1 win, 2 Finalists, 1 Semi-Finalist, and 8 Honorable Mentions. Plus 1 Rejection, but I didn’t let it get me down!

Stuart: Very wise. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Martin: When you can have both, why choose? But I will say, when it comes to Star Wars, I fell asleep halfway through Episode II and slept almost completely through III. When it comes to Star Trek, I have watched the Original Series more times than I can possibly count. I’ve watched the Animated Series at least half a dozen times. I’ve watched Next Gen probably three or four times at least. I’ve watched most of DS9, maybe a third of Voyager, and all of Enterprise. I’m not a huge Star Trek reader, but I’ve read at least 30 titles. And long, long ago, I wrote a couple of pieces of Star Trek fanfic. So I’m far, far, FAR more familiar with Star Trek.

Stuart: If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Martin: Patience and its dark side: Stubbornness. And I DO have it! I pride myself on my patience. Sometimes I even make a game out of it, trying to determine just how long I’ll have to wait for something. I once pulled into a drive-through lane and ordered one thing: a butterscotch shake. I got up to the window and waited. I saw someone bring the shake up to the window, set it down, and walk away. I saw somebody else come up to the window register briefly and then walk away. And so I waited. There was no one else in the drive-through lane behind me, so I waited some more. After a few minutes, my brain shifted into The Patience Game: How long can they go before somebody realizes what’s going on? So I waited some more. And the insidious side of The Patience Game is that the more time I invest in waiting, the more reluctant I am to give up. So I waited. And I waited. And eventually the manager came to the window and asked what I needed. When he learned that I had been in line for FORTY-FIVE MINUTES… Well, there was some shouting that came clear through the glass of the drive-through window.

Stuart: Ha ha! Great one! Tell me, when you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Martin: So many choices! Let’s call it a tie: a little plastic triceratops I called Trixie and Major Matt Mason, the astronaut figure. Rumor has it Tom Hanks wants to make a Major Matt Mason movie. If he does, I will be first in line for tickets!

Stuart: Sweet! For those who may not be familier with Major Matt Mason, here’s the here’s the Wikipedia link. When I won Writers of the Future, I had originally written my story for another market. How about you?

Martin: Well, ‘Unrefined” started as another Baen Memorial entry–the PERFECT Baen Memorial story, by my calculations. So it didn’t even place. Now the thing about Baen Memorial stories is they’re excellent Analog stories. This one was the PERFECT Analog story. So naturally, Trevor gave it a pass. So I sent it to WotF, right on the heels of a rejection. And I was absolutely sure that Dave would hate this story. So naturally… Authors, don’t try to predict the markets. They’ll always surprise you.

But the first idea? It centered around a team/quasi-family of asteroid miners who have to deliver a load or default on a contract. Only there’s one problem: I grew up reading Jerry Pournelle’s “Those Pesky Belters and Their Torch Ships”. The nuts-and-bolts are too much for this interview, but basically the essay proves that asteroid belt societies just make no sense. he problem is that the asteroids are so far apart, any ship with enough energy to land on these asteroids has more than enough energy to land on and launch from Earth. Pournelle smashed the concept of Belter civilization. Now that hasn’t stopped people from writing Belter civilization stories, but I can’t believe in them. And if I can’t believe in them, I can’t write them.

But Pournelle also gave us an alternative, one that I was not at all ashamed to adopt. An asteroid is hard to catch, but a planet’s gravity makes it easy to catch. And a massive planet like Jupiter is even easier! Plus Jupiter’s gravity has swept up millions of asteroids over the eons, capturing them as moonlets. And once your spacecraft is in Jupiter orbit, it’s relatively easy to rendezvous with these moonlets, since the difference between your velocity and theirs is low. Pournelle predicted a mining colony or colonies in Jupiter orbit. In “Unrefined”, I called these the Pournelle Settlements, and included a much-abbreviated version of this explanation.

That choice changed my initial concept. Instead of a small mining ship, the focus shifted to a settlement. I added an initial scene of the husband’s death, and the story expanded to explore how the colony could survive physical and economic sabotage and fulfill the dead man’s dream. I like to think it’s about a lot more than that: intrigue, leadership, grief, trust, and love.

Stuart: Well I can’t wait to read in in WotF 31! Good luck Martin, and enjoy Hollywood!


Martin’s work has appeared in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Galaxy’s Edge, and elsewhere. More at

You Love Me! You Really Love Me!

C Stuart Hardwick
Shawn Scarber
Marina Nelson Lostetter
Jamie Lackey
John EckelkampRobert Dawson
Stanley Love
Martin L. Shoemaker
Angus McIntyre
Karen Birkedahl Rylander

Since its early days, science fiction has played a unique role in human civilization. It removes the limits of what “is” and shows us a boundless vista of what “might be.” Its fearless heroes, spectacular technologies and wondrous futures have inspired many people to make science, technology and space flight a real part of their lives and in doing so, have often transformed these fictions into reality. The National Space Society and Baen Books applaud the role that science fiction plays in advancing real science and have teamed up to sponsor this short fiction contest in memory of Jim Baen.

Meet the Winners Returns – Jordan Ellinger

Last year I ran a series of interviews with my fellow Writers of the Future winners, and it was so much fun, I decided to do it again! As with last year, I decided to start off the series with a former winner, so this time, 2008 Winner Jordan Ellinger has kindly dropped by for the kick off.jordan

Stuart: Hi Jordan, thanks for starting us off this year!

Jordan: My pleasure!

Stuart: You were in WotF 25, so you’ve had a few years to put the experience in context. How would you sum up the effect it’s had on your writing career?

Jordan: I wasn’t one of those writers who immediately breaks out right after the workshop and takes the world by storm. I still needed to keep at it for a year or two before I started selling professionally. By far the biggest benefit I reaped and have continued to reap, since winning the contest, is the wealth of contacts that I’ve made since the event. Remember that WotF isn’t like Clarion West (which I also attended in ’09) or Writing Superstars, or virtually any other workshop. Everyone there is basically at the same place in their writing careers–pros by virtue of winning the contest, but still a year or two away from breaking out. You can grow together. I’ve been blessed enough to attend the workshop at ASI’s invitation for over 5 years now and every year I’ve made new friends with some amazingly talented writers. And of course there are the judges.

Stuart: And what are you working on now?

Jordan: I do more editing than writing right now (having just launched Urban Fantasy Magazine and I’ve been able to lean on some of those judges for stories. Additionally, I was lucky enough to collaborate with Mike Resnick, whom I met at the workshop, on a story and that’s been a big resume booster.

Stuart: When I won, you were kind enough to come hang out with us newbies, and I wanted to thank you for that. I know that you have done a lot of work on the Warhammer books, and you shared some thoughts on the tradeoffs of tie-ins, perhaps you’d like to comment on that here?

Jordan: I have sworn off tie-in writing for the moment, except for Star Citizen and Iron Kingdoms (if my schedule opens up). The problem with tie-in writing is that you aren’t creating assets for yourself. You’re working for a paycheck. An agent asked me last year to put together a collection that he could use to generate some buzz about my writing and I couldn’t. I don’t own anything that I’ve written for the past 3 years or so.

Stuart: But you do get the paycheck, and you build up your resume and skillset, right?

Jordan: After writing tie-ins for so long, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three kinds of people who should be writing tie-ins:

  1. People who love a particular property, and then they should write only for that property.
  2. Failed novelists who are looking to relaunch their careers.
  3. People who want to get paid to write their million words of crap. Even, then, they should probably just write their own thing.

And except for the second group, everyone should write under a pseudonym. You mention that it’s good resume and skill building. Well, many people think that it can HURT your resume, since the tie-in market is still viewed as a writing ghetto. It doesn’t help when larger franchises get staff members to write books, despite them not having developed their craft enough to pull it off. You certainly can build your skillset writing tie-ins, but why not do it by creating properties that you actually own?

Stuart: What advice do you have for this year’s winners as they head to Hollywood, and as they move on, awards in hand?

Jordan: Network, network, network. Tell your loved ones that you’re not going to be available when you’re down there. The judges are all masters of their craft–and they can open the right doors for you if they choose. It was Kevin J Anderson who got Patrick Rothfuss’ book in front of the agent who eventually landed him his big book deal, and Mike has been known to collaborate with one or two winners every year.

Stuart: What’s the nuttiest thing that ever happened to you?

Jordan: I was mugged in the red-light district in Amsterdam. I’m no giant, but Europeans are generally shorter than Canadians and because of that, and the fact that I was a little drunk, I was feeling pretty invincible. I smoked at the time and asked a very unsavory gentleman for a light. When he threatened to stab me with a needle for full of AIDS I yelled a warning to my friend and took off. About a block later I realize that my buddy wasn’t with me. I turned around and there he was standing right next to my mugger wondering what the heck was happening (there are substances other than alcohol that you can indulge in in Amsterdam and he’d liberally partaken of one of these). I wasn’t going to leave him there, so I began to run back towards them. Luckily, he clued in just before the mugger’s friends descended on us and we were able to make our escape together.

Stuart: Holy Geez! Personally, I’d say the single biggest short-term effect my win has had is credibility. It made me an instant mini-celebrity in the local writing guild, and I now get more support and understanding in my personal life where before, writing was seen as a very time-consuming hobby. Did you find that to be true as well, and what other effects have appeared down the road?

Jordan: Yes and no. I did feel a sense of validation when I won, and people who know about the contest took me seriously, but it can also hurt a writer’s career. Sometimes there’s a sense of pressure; now that they’ve won this big award, every story they write needs to be the best story ever, and that just doesn’t happen. I know a few writers who are blocked right now for that very reason.

Stuart: Sure, I can understand that. “Write the shitty draft” as Anne Lamott says. Do you have any unusual talents or hobbies?

Jordan: My hobby is Urban Fantasy Magazine. It’s one thing to run a magazine in your spare time, but it’s quite another to invest a pile of money in one and then desperately scramble to build something that’ll recoup that investment. Things are looking great for UFM and we’re ahead of our goal in terms of subscribers, but we’re still bleeding red ink and since the money is coming out of my pocket (and I’m not rich) I need to focus on getting it to at least break even.

Stuart: I usually ask newer writers whether they are “pantsers or plotters,” but in your case, let’s focus that. How do you address productivity in general, and meeting deadlines in particular? Do you see any conflict between creative force and the demands for timely production, and if so, how do you manage that?

Jordan: Part of the reason I got into tie-ins is that I’m unable to finish anything unless I am forced to do so. The contest forced me to finish short stories, and tie-in contracts force me to finish longer works. In terms of creativity, no, I don’t see a conflict. Writing is a muscle and you can train yourself to write quickly. Don’t believe writers who tell you that you have to spend months on a work to have it turn out great…they just haven’t developed the skill of writing to a deadline.

Stuart: Well thanks Jordan. It’s great to get your perspectives, and best of luck with UFM!


Jordan Ellinger’s story “After the Final Sunset” was a first place winner in the 2008 L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest, and appears (as Jordan Lapp) in vol 25 of the anthology. He’s also been featured in AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and various anthologies. He co-founded Every Day Fiction, the once-a-day Flash Fiction magazine, and is Managing Editor of Urban Fantasy Magazine. More information at

Do Hugo Awards Dream With Sad Puppy Eyes?

Brad Torgersen recently posted his opinions about the Hugo nominating and balloting process in what is fast becoming a tradition as sensible and esteemed as the minority response to the President’s State of the Union address. Sad Puppies III, it seems, will either destroy science fiction or tear down the pyres of injustice upon which it’s already smoldering.

Or not.

Brad is my friend. He’s a more-than-fine writer, a kind and decent man, and a thoughtful commentator on all things writerly, whether you agree with him about them or not. But while I’ve not made an exhaustive survey of the “Sad Puppies” blogs by Brad and Larry Correia and others over the last two years, what I have read rather reminds me of the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer says, “They STOLE my idea!” to which Jerry replies, “Which idea was that? To spend $10 million you don’t have or renovate a building you don’t own?”

The fact of the matter is, the Hugo is set up to meet the needs of the World Science Fiction Society, and key among these is to promote attendance at its conventions and their maintenance as the preeminent of their kind. It’s their party, and they make the rules. Which is not to say Brad and Larry and the other can’t have their opinions, or state them loudly, or go start (and fund) their own shindig.

I hope the result is a reward for literary quality and skill, but both are subject to complex tastes and trends, the waxing and waning of which are fundamental to healthy society. I’m not going to pander to whatever I think is this year’s anointed minority or theme, but neither am I going to shy away from writing stories that question the firmament at both ends of the political spectrum. That’s what spec fic is for, to disturb perspectives, not enshrine them.

In the meantime, I can’t worry about politics. Having won the Writers of the Future contest last year, I’m far too busy working on my own projects to worry about what WSFS is doing right or wrong. For the record, though, my stories, “Rainbows for Other Days” and “Callista’s Delight” are both eligible for Hugo and Campbell Award nomination this year—just sayin’. I’m not going to hold my breath, and Im not going to stay up late nights wondering whether the system is stacked against me. I’m just going to keep writing, and improving, and trying to connect with my audience, and I think that’s what we all better do.

David Gerrold’s Ten Essential Golden Age Science Fiction/Fantasy Books

David Gerrold wrote The Trouble With Tribbles, and has been writing ever since. He’s a curmugeon. And he’ss been around. Here is his list of “Essential Science Fiction/Fantasy Books from the Golden Age”. That is all

  • Starship Troopers, Heinlein (runner-up, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Heinlein) Why? Because it was the beginning of a whole subgenre, military SF.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin (runner up: Venus Plus X, Sturgeon ) Examining the nature of gender.
  • Dune, Herbert (runner up: Game of Thrones, Martin) Epic political adventure.
  • Ringworld, Niven (runner up: Rendezvous With Rama, Clarke) The large big thing….
  • The Stars My Destination, Bester (runner up: Nova, Delaney or Slan, Van Vogt) Space opera.
  • The Dying Earth/Eyes of the Overworld, Vance (runner up: The City And The Stars, Clarke) Far future adventure.
  • The Fountains of Paradise, Clarke (runner up: The Web Between The Worlds, Sheffield) Orbital space elevator
  • Stand On Zanzibar, Brunner (runner up: The Sheep Look Up, Brunner) Sprawling, multi-character epic portrayal of a future world.
  • Snowcrash, Stephenson (runner up: Shockwave Rider, Brunner) Where cyberpunk began.
  • Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Heinlein (runner up: Citizen of the Galaxy, Heinlein) Classic young adult adventures.

Thank You, John Lewis, Whoever you are.

IMAG0387A few months ago, my wife bought an Acer Chromebook 710 without realizing that well, it’s useless. Running Chrome OS made it perpetually tied to the Internet, and the Chrome OS is in firmware, so you can’t install a real, actual operating system. For those content to work totally within the constraints imposed by Chrome OS, it’s a nice little machine, $200 for a decent 16G solid state drive, 2G memory, and a dual core 1.66 GHz processor. But alas, all for naught, and no real way to redeem it with a lightweight Xubuntu installation.

Ah, but there is. This is the maker generation, and the Chromebook uses SeaBios, the open source firmware BIOS to end all BIOSes, and this nice Irish chap named John Lewis put together a super easy image that you can put on USB and use to flash the box as soon as you learn the Chrome OS developer mode secret handshake of doom.

So I did that, and that gave me a nice little Xubuntu box with no trackpoint support. Er, no. Full Ubuntu? No. Fedora? Yes! Fedora 20 gave me a fully functional box except…no, no, no!!! It crashes every time any sort of power down or suspend is attempted, and about 3 out of 4 attempts on boot. Well, that’s hardly a bargain, but I decided to run with it for a few weeks anyway, mostly to check out Fedora (pain in the ass–use Ubuntu) and the flat-topped keyboard style all Chromebooks and Ulrabooks now come with (eh, tolerable, I guess).

But this weekend, I visited the esteemed Mr. Lewis’s site and discovered he had announced an upgrade–and it looked like a simple–just run this script with power and Intranet connected–no hanshake of doom required! So did that.

Ubuntu still doesn’t recognize the trackpad, but now Fedora works perfectly. Every suspend/wake cycle completes successfully. Every boot works. No more hangs when playing YouTube videos. Sweet! I went out first thing this morning and bought an 8G memory upgrade. So now I have a fully functional writing powerhouse, running Fedora 20 in 10G of memory, with Scrivener, LibreOffice, and the usual utilities (still no Chromium, oddly, because it apparently doesn’t comply with the Fedora manifesto for commercial and narco-syndicalist purity–or something). I could not be happier unless this novel were to somehow suddenly complete and publish and negotiate foreign rights for itself. But honesty, what would be the fun in that?

The Acer C710 still has trackpoint problems, but these are static related, and I’m sure I can cure them with a little mechano improve. For his considerable trouble, I made a smal Paypal donating to John Lewis, and if you’d like to check out his work, you can find him here:

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